History by way of “things” has itself become a “thing”. Archaeologists, of course, always did history this way. But they would focus on, usually, assemblages of objects, rather individual pieces. While perhaps not the first—nothing is ever the first—the BBC and the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor popularized the concept.
This pioneering postcolonial work, originally published in 1966, was the first breakthrough Moroccan novel to be written in native Moroccan Arabic, rather than in French. Written after the country gained independence, the story follows the trajectory of two generations of al-Tihamis — a well-to-do family residing in Fez’s ancient medina — whose members characterize distinctive aspects of Moroccan society, and whose lives reflect the profound social changes taking place during the period.
A few years ago, Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim edited a much-needed and generous selection of Evliya Çelebi’s Seyhatname or Book of Travels. Evliya (1611-1682) spent the better part of forty years traveling around the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia Minor; he’s perhaps the best-known of all Ottoman explorers and travelers, which is not to say a great deal, because non-European travel-writers are still sadly under-represented in English translation.
Behind the somewhat unprepossessing title, The Watermelon Boys is the story of several several interlocking destinies playing out in what is now Iraq during and immediately after World War I.
William Atkins has done extensive and presumably rather expensive research for The Immeasurable World. He writes from first hand experience of visiting eight deserts as diverse as the empty quarter of Oman and the famous Burning Man Festival in the United States. Each gets an extended essay with similar components. So, no rides for days on end with just a camel for a friend, but Atkins, to his credit, does manage at each of the deserts he visits to get some sand in his shoes and some camel hair in his oatmeal porridge.
“You may wonder why the Middle East gets so much airtime. Well, regions of the world were competing to host the apocalypse and the Middle East won.”
It’s pretty hard to compete with the invention of the chariot, the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, so Christoph Baumer’s fourth and presumably final volume in his magisterial history of Central Asia is something of a mopping up operation.